FOR the Congress, it is not a question of defeating the BJP in Madhya Pradesh. The BJP has currently 28 of the state's 40 Lok Sabha seats. And if Congress does improve on its tally of 10—and it looks set to do it—it could be attributed to what analysts call the 'Sonia factor'.
This factor comes into play when Sonia visits constituencies of important Congress leaders—Arjun Singh, Kamal Nath and Ashutosh Dayal Sharma, son of former president Shankar Dayal Sharma. Obviously, only the more influential Congress leaders can invite her: the rest have to make do with her posters. So in Hoshangabad, Arjun Singh is described as Congress party ke majboot stambh, Sonia Gandhi ke bharosemand (pillar of Congress, Sonia's reliable)".
And in Vidisha, Ashutosh Sharma says the time has come for people to elect Sonia as their leader. He has, in addition, another line: "Pitaji ki chhaya mein, badlegi Vidisha ki kaya (Vidisha will develop in my father's shadow)". The position is the same in Chhindwara where Kamal Nath is up against BJP stalwart Sunder-lal Patwa and is hopeful that 'Madam' will effect that subtle 'swing' of votes in his direction. In the traditional Congress base of Chattisgarh, V.C. Shukla—in the absence of Sonia—has set up a 'Sonia rath' with pictures of the family adorning the vehicle.
Well-placed Congress sources say chief minister Digvijay Singh is quite happy with the scenario. Unless calculations go totally awry, his reasoning is an epitome of simplicity: with Sonia scheduled to visit the state, the Congress vote share should only go up from the 31 per cent it polled during the 1996 general elections. Anything upwards of 10 seats would come as a tremendous shot in the arm.
In the curious electoral scenario that exists in Madhya Pradesh—a state where political loyalties have traditionally been divided between the Congress and the BJP—such a line of thinking becomes almost imperative. Of late, the BSP has made inroads in MP's vast tribal belt, but instead of consolidating its gains, Kanshi Ram's hard bargaining has backfired badly and it would be surprising if the BSP can even hold on to the two seats it got in '96.
While its new entrant, Arvind Netam, is expected to retain Janjgir, there are other complications. MP traditionally elects Congress to the Vidhan Sabha (except in 1967, 1977 and 1992) and BJP to the Lok Sabha. So Digvijay's gameplan hinges as much on the assembly elections scheduled for the year-end as on the Lok Sabha.
None of the heavyweights contesting is likely to have it easy. Arjun Singh is up against sitting BJP candidate Sartaj Singh, a local who has won three consecutive elections. The battle is even more severe in Chhindwara. Though Patwa had defeated Kamal Nath last time, the Congressman now faces an uphill struggle. But in the BJP, there could be factions opposed to Patwa. And in Raipur, Shukla is fighting for survival, against a solid backward candidate Ramesh Bais. Madhavrao Scindia is also on a sticky wicket in Gwalior. The BJP has put up former Bajrang Dal boss Jaiban Singh Pabbiya. And Scindia is aware of his frailties when pitted against the combined might of the BJP and BSP.
Polling will be largely affected by grass-root issues. Rural dissatisfaction against Digvijay Singh's government is complete with the firing and killing of farmers in Multai. Soyabean cultivation, one of the largest in the country, has been decimated because there is no electricity for farmers. This general lack of development adds to the anti-Congress vote. In addition, the BJP has made rural inroads in MP and also support among the dispossessed communities, a fact reflected in its MP list: of 40 candidates, 20 belong to SC, ST and OBC.
The real Congress gains are expected to accrue in the Guna-Sheopuri belt, where the Scindia clan holds sway, irrespective of political leanings. Rajmata Vijayaraje Scindia, who is contesting from pocketborough Guna, is too unwell to campaign actively. Daughter Yashodhara Raje, the Rajmata's dummy candidate, has been rejected by the district returning officer in Sheopuri.
The initial BJP candidate in Dhar, was an ex-murder convict, Chattar Singh Durbar, whose nomination papers were rejected, leading to a last-minute change: the BJP has now put up his wife instead.
What remains to be seen is the kind of gains the Congress makes—notwithstanding the claims by Babulal Gaur, state BJP secretary, that the saffron sweep in MP is complete and counterclaims by Congress leader Suresh Pachouri that "the BJP is running scared". Among other things, it would also determine the future of Digvijay Singh.